SANA’A, Yemen – The Yemeni government, which has condemned the abduction of journalists and aid workers in Iraq, itself stands accused now of "abducting" journalists and trying to silence them.
Abdel-Karim al-Khiwani, chief editor of the daily al-Shoura, was picked up by the "terrorism department" last month and later sentenced by a court to a year in prison. The newspaper owned by the opposition Public Forces Union (PFU) party was ordered to close down for six months. Other staff members were summoned to face interrogation.
Khiwani was accused of supporting the anti-U.S. rebel Hussein Badraddine al-Houthi, who was battling government forces in Saada in north Yemen before he was killed last month.
"This is a kidnapping operation and a stupid mistake committed by the authorities," a lawyer for Khiwani said. Abdul-Fath al-Hakimi, a staff writer at the newspaper, told IPS that the court verdict proved that the judiciary "is not independent despite claims of the government to make it independent."
Hakimi said al-Shoura had reported events in Saada "with extreme neutrality, but the judicial authorities want us to stay at home voiceless. They defame the image of Yemen regionally and internationally."
The PFU said the newspaper had been targeted because it "opened corruption and malfeasance files." Khiwani had to face "a mock trial beyond the frame of law."
Khiwani said in a statement that the charges were filed for political reasons.
The courts have continued to postpone any appeal hearings. One official was reported as saying that the judge who would look into the case is ill.
Khiwani has been kept meanwhile in the central prison in capital Sana’a which houses those convicted of serious crimes. Khiwani’s lawyer said an inmate tried to assault him last week.
Many journalists fear further delays in view of the approaching Ramadan holidays.
The sentence against Khiwani has provoked widespread protest. The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) said "the strange and unjust ruling sabotaged all claims by the regime in regional and international conferences that it believes in democracy, freedom of the press and respect for human rights." It said lawyers should be allowed to appeal the sentence as soon as possible.
The YJS has pledged to campaign for the release of Khiwani and the reopening of the newspaper.
The Cairo-based Arab Journalists Federation (AJF) said it was particularly worried because "Arab regimes hand out excessive punishment for inconsequential reasons." Its secretary-general Salahuddin Hafiz called for solidarity against moves that "confiscate freedom."
Yemeni opposition parties have come together against "dictatorial methods and the rebuffing of others’ views." Such undemocratic moves are burying the emerging democracy in Yemen, they said in a statement.
Rashida al-Qaili from the Yemeni Female Journalists Forum said the court sentence had flouted the orders of President Ali Abdallah Saleh to cancel imprisonment sentences against journalists. "The detention and the sentence violate the constitution and even tribal norms," she told IPS.
President Saleh has accused the opposition of treason. "The joint meeting [opposition] parties, except the Islah Party, abused freedom of expression by committing treason in supporting rebel leader Hussein Badruddin al-Houthi," he said in a statement. "I caution them again that I will have to take constitutional measures against them."
The detention has been condemned also by the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). "This is a verdict that challenges democratic values in the Yemen," IFJ general secretary Aidan White said in a statement.
"Journalists are rightly angry over this shocking injustice," he said. "It compromises free speech and calls into question Yemen’s obligations to defend human rights and freedom of expression."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has written to President Saleh that the detention of Khiwani is a gross violation of freedom of expression. CPJ executive director Ann Cooper appealed to Saleh to "set Khiwani free and cancel the charges against him."